Triple Crown Hangover: Does Preakness lack buzz? A horseplayer conversation
by John Scheinman
The assignment offered was to write about the mood leading up to Preakness Stakes with an undefeated Kentucky Derby winner coming to Baltimore in the wake of the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
“Mood” is the temporary state of mind or feeling. I started to think, what is my own mood? I have been asked a bunch of times this spring if racing, and the sports world at large, is suffering from a hangover after American Pharoah won the Triple Crown last year. Also, I have kept trying to understand why I feel so blasé about the undefeated Derby winner Nyquist.
One thing I do know is that people, as they age, have the perception of time accelerating. The Triple Crown of 2015 still feels so fresh and here we are again. It came upon us quickly.
I decided I needed to talk to someone and get a sounding board to better zero in on the zeitgeist of this year’s Triple Crown. I wanted to greater define the elements that lead to the particular mood that, to me, is somewhat of a malaise.
Don’t misunderstand, Kentucky Derby Day was thrilling and the Preakness Stakes is also filling me with the usual anticipation. But something does “feel” different this year, and I want to know why.
So I got together early this past Saturday morning with my longtime horse-playing sidekick, “Action” Andy Andrews on the catwalk outside the Pimlico press box to watch Nyquist jog and then talk about this year’s Triple Crown.
The following are excerpts from that conversation:
Me: Were you pumped going into the Derby?
Andy: It’s always cool Derby Day.
Me: Did you have any sense of deflation after last year’s Triple Crown, like you weren’t ready to gear it up and do it again.
Andy: No, it’s always time to play.
Me: Yeah, but I’m talking just about the Triple Crown. What was your sense of the buzz? Was it different or did everything seem the same?
Andy: It was different. Nobody talked about it as much going in. You didn’t hear much local media or anybody talking about it going into the Derby. Because I guess [the Triple Crown] had happened and nobody really cared anymore in the media.
Me: So, like Baltimore TV?
Andy: Yeah, and ESPN or anything like that; it didn’t seem like they covered it.
Me: And they probably didn’t.
Andy: Because it happened. Before, they’d be there at the Derby.
Me (mimicking the voice of a sports anchor): “Will this be the year that there’s a Triple Crown winner?!”
Me: Well how about since Nyquist has won; he’s an undefeated horse at 8-for-8? I feel like he is the most uninteresting 8-for-8 horse I’ve ever come across. Is that me?
Andy: No. I mean, for one, he’s West Coast. I didn’t really pay too much attention because he kept beating the same horse over and over again. He beat Swipe, what, four times in a row? And then Swipe got crushed.
Me: But, who were the last undefeated horses that won the Derby? Seattle Slew, Smarty Jones? Good horses!
Me: Big Brown.
Me: People were kind of excited about Barbaro because he won the Florida Derby from that outside post in a wicked fight with Sharp Humor, who died, by the way, recently.
Me: OK, we’re days away from the Preakness. Do you feel like it’s picked up momentum?
Andy: No, because we just got here [the Pimlico spring meet began May 12; last year it started on April 2], and usually we’re here at least a month before the Preakness.
Me: Well, that’s what I want to say. I feel like this meet has been hurt by just starting right as we go into the Preakness. We haven’t really even gotten to get into Pimlico. Like gotten into it as a race meet.
Andy: The whole month of April you usually have Pimlico.
Me: So, in your mind, how has that hurt?
Andy: Not enough Pimlico. It seems rushed. The stakes are going to be all that weekend and that’s it.
Me: We didn’t build any anticipation here. We showed up and here it is. And there was no anticipation for the Preakness being built at Laurel. Because it’s Laurel!
Andy: And hadn’t it usually been that opening week of baseball was opening week at Pimlico?
Me: But this is probably local for us. I don’t think the rest of the country is feeling the same way.
Andy: No, because they don’t see the beauty in Pimlico like we do.
Me: Agreed. What do you think the buzz is around the country? You watch more TV than I do. Is your sense people are digging on this Triple Crown season?
Andy: To be honest, I haven’t seen a lot about it on TV.
Me: That says something, doesn’t it?
Andy: And I’m usually watching the Orioles or watching racing.
Me: The turnout so far at Pimlico has been pretty light. There’s no media here.
Andy: It’s because you don’t have any horses here.
Me: And the media doesn’t have the money to send someone to camp out here.
Andy: Another thing: The Pimlico Special should be today (the Saturday before the Preakness), like it always was. Because the Derby’s over and then it’s the Pimlico Special.
Me: So instead of turning attention to Pimlico, we’re running $5,000 claimers.
Andy: Now it’s all jammed into two days. Back in the day, the Pimlico Special also forced the bigger outfits that had older horses to come here after the Derby because they had a race next Saturday.
Me: And then they’re available for media and local people can do stories. It really had a rhyme and reason to it back then. I don’t remember why they took the Special off the week before. Oh, it was to build the big weekend days.
Andy: But you could build a big week. You don’t have to have two big days and that’s it. Have a festival of racing like Oaklawn does and it’s continuous. It doesn’t have to be two days and that’s it.
Me: Is your sense that there is a hangover from American Pharoah outside of the stuff we’re talking about, which is more local?
Andy: It’s just kind of maybe like, OK, everybody saw it and now they’re done. They’re waiting to see it and waiting to see it and then they saw it and said, ‘OK, that was cool.’ It happened, everybody saw it, and now they say, ‘I don’t need to see it again.’
Me: Look how funny people are. People are like, ‘Oh, it’s never going to happen. Let’s change the days. We need more weeks between races.’ Now they don’t even care. They lose interest so quick. I don’t think there’s a lot of pop with this horse, Nyquist.
Me: But I don’t think the horse has a lot of pop either. Granted, he’s undefeated. When you see him, he’s not carrying it. There’s no majesty about him at all. Right? He’s just a horse.
Andy: Yeah. It kind of sucked too with him coming east. Say Mohaymen would have won the Florida Derby and Nyquist would have won the Santa Anita Derby. Then you would have had the two undefeated going into the Derby. The Florida Derby was kind of a big day, and they built it up as a big day, and Nyquist just killed him.
Me: That was by far – maybe even including the Derby itself – the most exciting and most anticipated race of the spring. Do you think that by offering that bonus and getting Nyquist there that they kind of deflated things? Don’t forget, [the Stronach Group] owns both racetracks [Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park]. Did it deflate some of the anticipation for the Derby by already having the two best horses face each other?
Andy: Maybe, because then it was kind of like, ‘Oh, he just killed the horse that we thought could beat him.’
Me: In some ways, you can’t blame them because they get to undermine the Kentucky Derby, which is owned by their rival, Churchill Downs. Right? They’re like, ‘We don’t care. We’re going to have the big race.” I think the Florida Derby was the big race.
Andy: They kept saying, Nyquist is the highest-earning 3-year-old going in [to the Kentucky Derby] and that was only because he got the million-dollar bonus.
Me: This whole past winter was about Mohaymen and Nyquist. I, for one, was one of the people that thought Mohaymen was the best 2-year-old in the country. So, they’re sailing along, undefeated, and then they meet in the Florida Derby. The Kentucky Derby is the biggest race in the country, so you can’t really screw it up if you put burros in it. But, at the same time, from a purist’s perspective, the Florida Derby was a better race. Right?
Me: Is that good or bad?
Andy: It’s what we’ve got!
Me: But it was by choice. If they hadn’t had that $1 million bonus that would not have happened. Nyquist would have stayed in California.
Andy: True. But it could be like you said, it could just be a down crop and in a down crop, people are just not that into it. It’s like he slayed the beast when he beat Mohaymen. That was the horse everybody thought could beat him. Now, they’re going into the Preakness like, ‘We’re done. We’re not running.’
Me: From there on out, you’re pretty much grasping for straws because if you beat Mohaymen, you’ve beaten the best.
Andy: Mohaymen beat everybody on the East Coast that was anybody, and then he got beat and that was it.
Me: And it kind of gets back to my thing about the Kentucky Derby points qualifying system, as well. I’m writing for TwinSpires, so I don’t want to be too critical. We’ve had chalk every year since we moved to the point system. I don’t think the Kentucky Derby should be the anticlimax. It should be the climax. They eliminated the sprinters and Trinniberg and all of that.
Andy: Remember when [Fusaichi Pegasus] won? He was like the first favorite in 15 years that won. Favorites never won the Derby.
Me: And bettors love that.
Andy: This year, the top four betting choices ran 1-2-3-4. Last year, the top three ran 1-2-3.
Me: Fans love that, but bettors don’t. I think racetracks are solidly in the business of building bettors now and not fans. Do you agree with that?
Me: So I think it behooves them to have a Derby that’s blowing up.
Andy: Every year you think the Derby has a chance to blow up and it’s the favorite.
Me: I think the answer to this is there has been a slight hangover from American Pharoah because we saw it and people kind of turn away because it’s been done. But also, there’s sort of predictability because we’ve seen how the horses this year have already shaken out and they’ve lived up to that.
Andy: Think about the preps: Gun Runner won both of the ones in Louisiana and he showed up [at Churchill Downs] and ran third. Nyquist beat everybody he could beat. He beat Exaggerator and Mohaymen. But they all came back and ran their race and ran 1-2-3-4. So, the top four horses in the country ran 1-2-3-4. Gun Runner was the best in the south. Mohaymen was the best in Florida. And Exaggerator and Nyquist were the best in California.
Me: Do you think if Nyquist wins the Preakness, there will be a real excitement going into the Belmont Stakes?
Andy: I would think. In the ‘70s, it happened three times and back-to-back [with Seattle Slew and Affirmed], and you had a big gap before the ‘70’s.
Me: I just don’t feel like the public has fallen in love with Nyquist. I don’t think people are going, ‘Nyquist!”
Andy: Yeah. Maybe it’s the name. Not a lot of hockey fans!
Me: American Pharoah, people loved him after the Derby.
Andy: What did you have, 15,000 people for a gallop at Saratoga?
Me: I’m not feeling that yet with Nyquist.
Andy: Not yet, but you never know. People could jump on if he wins the Preakness.